Overall, this was a good year at the State House for those who care about Maine’s lakes. Lawmakers adopted several measures to help protect Maine’s lakes and the level of discussion about the importance of Maine’s lakes was high.
Sen. Tom Saviello’s recent column (“Lakes protection falls victim to politics,” May 9) focused narrowly on his view of what happened. Here’s our perspective:
Maine’s lakes generate more than $3.5 billion in economic activity annually and help sustain 52,000 jobs, but recent research shows that water quality in Maine’s lakes is declining. Many lakes are close to a tipping point that could result in a rapid loss of water quality, including from invasive species that already have hit 27 Maine lakes.
Legislators introduced several bills to address these threats, and people from across Maine came to testify. The hearing on “An Act to Protect Maine’s Lakes” (L.D. 1744), introduced by Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, lasted eight hours, with nearly everyone supporting the bill.
Eliot Stanley of the Sebago Lake Anglers Association recalled when he could see down 25 feet in Sebago Lake, but visibility now is only about 8 feet. Ginger Jordan-Hillier shared how Great Pond in Belgrade has been treasured by six generations of her family, but she now worries about the decline in the Department of Environmental Protection’s lake protection work.
Steve Mogul of Bangor said Hopkins Pond in Mariaville is like a member of his family, and he’s concerned that declining water quality could undermine property values and devastate the town’s budget. Dan Buckley from the University of Maine at Farmington shared research from 31 lakes that shows “We are losing in our efforts to maintain water quality in our lakes and ponds.”
With this input, lawmakers provided $41,500 to the LakeSmart program that helps lakefront property owners reduce pollution. They added $20,000 to the Volunteer Lake Monitoring Program and they increased funding to combat invasive species.
That’s the good news, but here’s the bad news. Lawmakers failed to override the governor’s veto of L.D. 1744, a bill to strengthen DEP’s lake protection program and protect water quality by prohibiting fertilizer use within 25 feet of a lake.
In his column, Saviello, R-Wilton, correctly explains that the committee bill banned fertilizers within 50 feet of a lake unless a soil test showed fertilizer was needed to stop shoreline erosion. As the bill headed to the floor, we learned that landscape contractors opposed the 50-foot restriction and were lobbying to defeat the bill, including by urging the governor to veto it. We also heard the administration opposed the section of the bill that described lake education work that lawmakers felt the DEP should be doing with schools and teachers.
To avoid a veto, McCabe offered a compromise amendment to remove the lake education language and reduce the fertilizer setback to 25 feet — the same as in New Hampshire and Vermont. Because neither of these states offers an exemption for a soil test, it was not included in McCabe’s amendment. A buffer of at least 20 feet is recommended as “best practice” for protecting lakes, according to “New England Regional Nitrogen and Phosphorous Fertilizer and Associated Management Practice Recommendations for Lawns Based on Water Quality Considerations,” written by 20 university and agency experts, including six from Maine.
The McCabe amendment passed 124-11 and then the bill cleared the House (135-0) and the Senate (35-0). Saviello voted for the bill containing the 25-foot buffer, so we were surprised on the last day of the session when he changed his position and urged McCabe to amend the bill to restore the 50-foot setback with the soil test. McCabe, having persuaded his caucus to amend the bill to reduce a veto threat, was not prepared to do so. The bill was sent to the governor’s desk, and he vetoed it.
The House voted to override the veto 125-21, but the Senate fell three votes short (21-14), with Saviello and 13 other Republican senators supporting the governor.
As a result, Maine has no fertilizer-free zone next to our lakes, and property owners can fertilize their lawns right to the water’s edge, jeopardizing the health of our lakes.
Lawmakers took some positive steps for Maine’s lakes this year, but they were unable to override the governor’s veto. Further work will be required next year, with leadership, we hope, from Saviello, McCabe, and other lake champions who may be elected to serve the people of Maine and the lakes they love.
Pete Didisheim is advocacy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. Jenn Burns Gray is staff attorney and advocate for Maine Audubon.